A staple of the central Maine high school wrestling scene has hit a milestone birthday.

The 40th Tiger Invitational will be held Saturday in Gardiner. It’s the oldest non-state championship tournament in the state. Ten area teams, a mix of local schools such as Mt. Blue, Cony and Erskine, as well as teams from away such as Westbrook, will hit the mat.

“It’s pretty prestigious, we have teams calling in every year,” Gardiner coach Matt Hanley said. “It’s tough, and there’s some real quality wrestling in it. It’s a little different now, everybody seems to have tournaments now. The tournament scene has become a real big part of wrestling. But to have the oldest one in the state, it’s really good.”

Hanley has seen the tournament grow firsthand. He wrestled at Gardiner in the late ‘70s, the early stages of the Tiger Invitational. For the past 13 years, Hanley has led the Tigers into the tournament as head coach. And, Hanley says, whenever he is done coaching, he is far from being finished with the tournament.

“I’ve wrestled in it myself,” Hanley said. “I wouldn’t mind reffing it someday to go full circle. It just started when I was there.”

Hanley said the tournament has grown over the years — starting from four teams in the early years to 10 today. It helps from a scouting perspective, finding out which teams and which wrestlers may be standouts come conference and state meet time.

“It’s where you start the feeling out process,” Hanley said. “Where all the kids think about wrestling (weight-wise) for the year. Who the new kids are or the kids that have really stepped it up. Not that we’re going to make any major adjustments, but some teams do based on who’s wrestling where.”

Mt. Blue won the tournament last year, finishing with a total of 154 points. Gardiner finished second with 120 points. Westbrook, Erskine and Cony rounded out the top five teams. Both of the Del Gallo brothers — Dan and Peter — won individual titles for Gardiner. Dan beat MCI’s Stewart Buzzell by technical fall at 145 pounds. Peter beat Erskine’s Justin Studholme for the 113-pound title. Dan has since graduated, but Peter remains, as well as Jake Truman (170 pounds), Hamish Thornton (182 pounds) and Andrew Doody-Veilleux, who each won in the consolation finals.

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Wrestling coaches are quick to tell anyone the regular season is a grind. Wins are welcomed this early in the season, but coaches are looking into more technical aspects of their wrestlers’ game, specifically if they are picking up new moves learned in practice.

Aspects like move sets is what Mt. Blue coach Scott Jennings is looking for from the Cougars. Jennings is in his first season as head coach at Mt. Blue, and said the team is going through some early season growing pains.

“We have a core group of seniors and everyone else is pretty young,” Jennings said. “It’s seeing how they develop from week to week, it’s kind of a big deal to us. Whether or not they are picking up the technique that we’ve been teaching. It’s been a little rough so far, people are still pretty raw. I’ve shown them stuff they haven’t done in the past.”

Early season touraments like the Tiger Invitational bring valuable mat time to some teams. Erskine carries a roster of 24 wrestlers, but has gone against teams in dual meets that carry far less on their roster. As a result, teams are forced to forfeit in certain weight classes. In a meet last week with Oceanside, the Eagles won nine matches by way of forfeit, coming away with a 60-18 score. Erskine also beat Nokomis 40-27, with five wins coming from forfeits.

“We filled 12 of the 14 weight classes, Nokomis filled seven and Oceanside filled five,” Erskine coach Patrick Vigue said. “I had three starters that didn’t wrestle a single match, just walked out and got their hand raised. If that happens again (tonight) it’ll be two weeks that they haven’t had a match and then we go to the Tiger. It’s not good.”

Vigue said a big problem with teams has been filling the lower weight classes like 106-pounds or 113-pounds. At the Tiger Invitational, wrestlers can get as many as four or five matches in a single day.

“It’ll be a test, and we need it,” Vigue said.

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While Gardiner and Cony see each other yearly in tournaments and the occasional tri-meet, a rare occurance takes place tonight in Gardiner.

The Tigers and Rams get together for a dual meet at 7 tonight in Gardiner. It is, according to Hanley, the first dual meet between the two schools to be held in Gardiner in roughly 10 years.

The two schools wrestle in different classes — Cony in Class A and Gardiner in Class B — so any dual meet opportunities between the ancient rivals is rare.

Cony has already found early season success, finishing fifth last weekend at the Westbrook Invitational. The Rams finished with 100 points, behind Westbrook with 101 points, Mt. Ararat with 120.5 points, Mountain Valley with 166 points and champion Massabesic with 188 points.

“It should be an interesting night of wrestling,” Hanley said.

Dave Dyer — 621-5639

ddyer@centralmaine.com